Hurricane Katrina has many legacies for the Bush White House, none pleasant. One is the guarantee that as soon as disaster strikes in the United States, President Bush’s every move is closely scrutinized to gauge the speed and tone of his response to the suffering.
This became clear yet again on Tuesday, as the enormity of the wildfires sweeping across Southern California became apparent.
The White House reacted with what has become a familiar pattern: Bush dropped a few lines of sympathy and promised assistance into an already scheduled speech. Across the administration, aides volunteered as many facts and figures as possible about the federal contribution to the disaster response, a federal emergency to speed relief funding was declared in the middle of the night, and a presidential visit to the affected area was quickly arranged.
The White House’s handling of Katrina in the days before it hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in late August 2005 seemed set to follow this model. Bush and his aides issued repeated warnings to worried locals, conferred with officials in the region and promised Washington would do all it could to help.
But once the massive storm blew ashore, smashing Mississippi’s coastal communities to sticks and submerging New Orleans in water, the federal response turned dismal.
Locals were left wanting for urgently needed supplies. Bush seemed disengaged from the crisis and then stumbled through initial appearances in the disaster zone aimed at correcting the impression. And some locals feel the White House’s level of engagement in the Gulf Coast’s continuing misery hasn’t improved much in two years.
Katrina was a departure from Bush’s handling of previous disasters.
Most notably, Bush endeared himself to the nation with his bullish but comforting stance after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He also was praised for his reaction when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its seven-member crew. He was omnipresent in Florida when that state was hit by four hurricanes in 2004.
But all that was wiped out by Katrina, and the White House has struggled at times since to regain its disaster-response footing.
After a devastating tornado in Greensburg, Kan., in May, the administration had to backtrack after initially appearing to blame the state’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, for not asking quickly enough for help from the federal government.
In August, Bush also reacted quickly to a deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota by scheduling a visit. But this followed an unseemly early emphasis from the White House on how fixing structural deficiencies is the state’s responsibility.
On Tuesday, with the California blazes already affecting hundreds of thousands of acres and forcing the evacuation of more than half a million people, the White House presented a picture of a heavily engaged administration.
White House press secretary Dana Perino came to her daily briefing armed with slides detailing Washington’s contribution so far. It included 32 firefighting crews and dozens of fire engines from the Agriculture Department, 1,239 federal firefighters, 25,000 cots and 280,000 bottles of water.
“We send the help of the federal government,” Bush declared during a speech otherwise devoted to the war on terror.
The president called a Cabinet meeting for Wednesday morning, to hear a first-hand report on what more Washington could do from Federal Emergency Management Administrator R. David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The president had dispatched his two top federal disaster officials to California on Tuesday night, and they were to address their boss and the Cabinet via secure videoconference from the region.
Ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Bush held a half-hour conference call Tuesday night with several officials involved in the federal effort, with all receiving an initial update from the ground from Chertoff and Paulison.
Bush also scotched plans to travel to St. Louis Thursday for a budget speech and fundraiser for Republicans; he laid on plans for a daytrip to California instead. This in spite of the continuing — and perhaps worsening — crisis threatened by hotter temperatures and higher winds, and Perino’s statement earlier in the day that discussing such travel was premature and perhaps inappropriate precisely because of that.
In an interview, Perino said that both Katrina and today’s speedy news cycles have made White House officials aware they must get the word out quickly for it to count. Before, conversations about supply lines and local needs would happen quietly and only among lower level staff, or a presidential trip wouldn’t be announced until it had been completely put together.
Now, she said these things are publicized as soon as possible, perhaps even before all details are known.
“We’re conscious of talking faster,” Perino said. “We need to keep up. If you don’t, people might accuse you of not doing what you should be doing.”
To be sure, the public relations piece of handling a tragedy is tricky. Overkill brings accusations of crass political opportunism. Too little attention, or waiting too long to visit, raises doubts about compassion.
And the most important piece of response, of course, isn’t slideshows and presidential words of comfort. It’s getting food, medical care, shelter and recovery teams to the area, not to mention staying committed during months (or years) or rebuilding.
To this end, Pentagon officials said Katrina taught them to be more forward-leaning. The military has already sent resources to California, but also is trying to predict what requests might materialize in the coming days. For instance, a battalion of Marines — some 550 people — is training for firefighting duties.
“One of the lessons that we, as a nation, learned is that in a crisis, you don’t wait to be asked; you lean forward, you prepare your capabilities and you ask, very pointedly, ‘How can I help?’,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale said. “And that’s a different mindset. It’s a sense of urgency.”
Jennifer Loven covers the White House for The Associated Press.